Salonen’s “Nyx” Outshines Brahms

GermanyGermany Schumann, Salonen, Brahms: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Hall Gasteig, Munich, 7.6.2012 (JFL)

Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns, op.86
Salonen: Nyx
Brahms: Concerto No.2 in B-flat, op.83

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo courtesy & © Astrid Ackermann

To write a solo work for four horns is an audacious way of asking for trouble. As if the spotlight didn’t shine on them enough as it is, exposed, lyrical, and betraying every little mistake, now four of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s horn players stood on the front edge of the stage in Munich’s Philharmonic Hall, left of Esa-Pekka Salonen, tackling Schumann’s Konzertstück in F, op.86.

It was an apropos overture to an evening that stressed the horn section—albeit different players, with the front four getting a deserved rest. They’re up front in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx, an orchestral piece half the way to a clarinet concerto that opens with a rising, marimbaphone-supported horn statement: delicately, with underlying agitation, before the entire vast orchestra chimes in homophonously.The BRSO is one of the few orchestras with a brass section where Norbert Dausacker’s suggestion that the seven horn players drew lots among them as to who would get to play the concert sounded plausible. (Even if I don’t believe that for a second.) To shift the burden of the Konzertstück’s demands more evenly from first horn Eric Terwilliger, they performed an amalgamated version that trades notes accordingly. Half way through the first movement, the front four were in the zone and Salonen pulled the work through all three movements as if on a string, with nary a slacking moment along the way.

Cutting to the chase: Nyx is a great, great work. Without being literal, it’s palpable, image-inducing music, belly music rather than brainy musical theory. It’s music that grabs you by the lapels… possibly lower. It lures, it beguiles, it makes luxurious use of quiet, it brings out militaristic tones, and it’s not a second longer than the music it contains. Nyx communicates with refreshing American efficiency and directness, but sounds really like the modern continuation of Debussy, if there hadn’t been a period of ideological disorientation on contemporary ‘notational music’ in-between. If others hear Ives or Stravinsky in it, I was repeatedly reminded of Mahler. On one level how it wasn’t like Mahler at all… but much more straight forward, less convoluted, less cloying (and I say that as a Mahler aficionado). In another way it felt like the appropriate modern substitute for Mahler, a great symphonic movement that pushed all the right buttons and hit all the right keys. I sat at the edge of my seat, greedily taking it in, and afterwards, I was in no mood to have the impression ruined by the B-flat Brahms Piano Concerto (no offense to Yefim Bronfman) that would follow after intermission.

Alas, I came back, realizing that the sandwich-position of the Salonen piece was the only feasible way to program the work: If you flip the halfs and program Brahms first, the Konzertstück would be exposed as terribly superfluous opening the second half… and you might have a few concert goers trickling home early, ready to stay away from a—heaven help—contemporary piece. Just Salonen in the second half (though its musical content would fully justify that) would have attracted even fewer folk—aside: one doesn’t want to miss out on showing off your own players in the Schumann. The gutsy (=ruinous) programming choice might have been to do Salonen’s own concerto instead of Brahms. The soloist after all, to whom it was dedicated, already has it in his repertoire. But then there would have been 300 enthusiastic music lovers around me in the Gasteig, instead of 2300.

All that said, the Brahms—smothering the sonic Salonen-memory though it did—was quite terrific. The second rank of the BRSO horns showed again the stuff they were made of, and long-time Salonen collaborator Bronfman took such a clean, pleasantly understated way with the work (and a gorgeous slow movement, where first cellist Sebastian Klinger shone, along the way)that it went some way in re-kindling my appreciation for the artist which had cooled over the course of my exposures in D.C. and Baltimore. This was swift artlessness at its best, with the orchestra and conductor ideally suited to match it. Perhaps predictably, the audience appreciated this interpretation more than the creation earlier… which is perhaps as emblematic for the troubles of classical music as was the dead-silence, pockmarked by coughs, after the furious finale of the Brahms Concerto’s first movement.

Jens F. Laurson

Photography Astrid Ackermann.